Relationships Violence and Abuse Negative Body Image and Child Abuse History By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada. Learn about our editorial process Updated on January 26, 2021 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS Medically reviewed by Rachel Goldman, PhD, FTOS Facebook LinkedIn Twitter Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print If you were abused or not properly cared for as a child, and you now struggle with overeating, you are not alone. Many others who suffered from childhood abuse and neglect have gone on to develop Binge Eating Disorder (BED), a problem with over-eating, in adulthood. Feeling and saying, "I hate my body" is extremely common, especially for people who were abused in childhood. Your Feelings About Yourself If you suffered from childhood abuse, and you struggle with over-eating, you may have developed overly negative feelings about yourself, also known as low self-esteem. Problems with low self-esteem are particularly common among people who were emotionally abused as children. It can be hard to believe this, as so many people put on a brave face to the world, but low self-esteem can take its toll on people from all walks of life. Low self-esteem affects many people, whether or not they were abused, and sometimes leads to or is made worse by overeating or other addictive behavior. In fact, low self-esteem is such a common problem that almost any counselor you see will be able to help you to overcome these negative feelings about yourself. Often, low self-esteem is based on an unrealistic view of yourself, especially if you were abused or mistreated as a child. Counseling, whether it is specialist counseling for overeating or addiction or regular counseling with a general counselor or psychologist, can help you see yourself in a more realistic light, so you can come to appreciate things that make you feel good about yourself. If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database. Your Feelings About Your Body It is not unusual for people, particularly women, to feel dissatisfied with their bodies these days. Many blame the fashion and diet industries for promoting unrealistic ideals of what people should look like. Even models are unable to live up to these impossible standards, needing designer clothing, excessive makeup, and clever camera and airbrushing techniques to achieve the fantasy of perfection we see in magazines. Some people with binge eating disorders have particularly negative feelings about their own bodies, so much so that it can be a part of the problem. Research has also shown that people who binge eat who were emotionally or sexually abused are particularly likely to be unhappy about their bodies, even more so than people who binge eat whose childhoods were instead plagued by physical abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Feeling bad about your body may actually be making your tendency to overeat worse. As with low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction is a problem that counselors and psychologists face with their clients on a daily basis, so reaching out for help will be met with understanding and support. Because your poor image of your body is based on unrealistic standards, a counselor or psychologist can help you recognize your own unique beauty, that is based on who you really are, not on clever tricks, make-up, or a perfectly proportioned or skinnier body. Taking on the Voice of Your Abuser Research has also helped uncover the reason why people who were emotionally or sexually abused generally have more depressive symptoms and greater body dissatisfaction, and more severe problems with binge eating. It seems that self-criticism is the crucial factor that drives some people who binge eaters to feel so negatively about their bodies. One way of understanding this pattern is that people who were emotionally abused as children experienced harsh criticism from their abuser, which they then turned on themselves, becoming their own harshest critic. This happens whether or not depressive symptoms develop, although depressive symptoms may intensify the effect of self-criticism on negative body image. This is how people tend to develop self-esteem. We hear messages that are then internalized. If these were negative messages, then we are more likely to develop a poor self-esteem, but if we hear positive messages and internalize those messages, that can help develop a better self-esteem. People who were sexually abused often develop a negative body image due to being treated as sexual objects by their abusers, at a time when they were still developing an understanding of their own bodies. Having treatment for sexual or emotional abuse can change the way you talk to yourself so that you become your own best friend, rather than your own worst enemy. Writing your own affirmations is one way that you can begin to change the way you talk about yourself right away, and can have a lasting effect on the way you "talk" to yourself in your own head. Does Childhood Abuse Cause Binge Eating? We know that there is a strong association between childhood abuse and binge eating disorders, as well as between childhood abuse and other eating disorders, addictions, and mental health problems. We even know that the type of abuse or neglect binge eaters experienced when they were children had a significant effect on their negative body image in adulthood. Nonetheless, this is not proof that childhood abuse causes these problems in later life. Dr. David Dunkley and his colleagues, who carried out a study with 170 overweight adults who wanted help with binge eating, and whose problems were not otherwise explained by a significant physical or mental disorder, showed the mechanism by which the link between childhood abuse and body dissatisfaction is facilitated by self-criticism. But although self-criticism has a profound effect on negative body image, it is impossible to tell from this research whether child abuse actually causes self-criticism, body dissatisfaction, or binge eating. The only way to find this out would be to track people over time, starting in childhood. A Word From Verywell If you or someone you love suffered from childhood abuse and is struggling with binge eating, compulsive overeating, or low self-esteem, it's important to know that treatment is available and recovery is possible. There is no shame in getting help, so don't wait to reach out to a physician, dietician, or mental health professional for guidance. 1 Source Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy. Dunkley DM, Masheb RM, Grilo CM. Childhood maltreatment, depressive symptoms, and body dissatisfaction in patients with binge eating disorder: The mediating role of self-criticism. Int J Eat Disord. 2010. doi:10.1002/eat.20796 Additional Reading Fairburn C, Doll H, Welch S, Hay P, Davies B, O’Connor M. "Risk factors for binge eating disorder: A community-based, case-control study." Arch Gen Psychiatry 55:425–432. 1998. Glassman L, Weierich M, Hooley J, Deliberto T, Nock M. "Child maltreatment, non-suicidal self-injury, and the mediating role of self-criticism." Behav Res Ther 45:2483–2490. 2007. By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist for Relationships Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.